Friday, December 22, 2017

Panel Talk on Resolving Technology Transfer Conflicts

I recently moderated a panel talk at a unique conference with Academia and Industry leaders as a key Unicon. The focus of this conference was enabling collaboration between industry and universities and do justice to the role this partnership has as an imperative for disruptive leadership. This blog is dedicated to give a bit of a glimpse into this panel talk and some thoughts that emerged from speaking with some amazing people in this conference-

Setting the context:
I wanted to start by bringing forward 3 points about this exciting and relevant panel discussion.
Few years back, I used to encourage my team to be well-versed with dealing with change, and staying ahead of it. In today's times, the narrative has evolved from being just change to that of "transformation", which is orders of magnitude higher degree than change. Bringing change is rather easy, but bringing in transformation requires a large scale of innovation. 
Most progressive organizations cannot innovate by being confined to the 4 walls of the organization. They need able partners. Universities are often perceived as major resources in a company's innovation strategy.

Second point is more of a conversation that I having with one of the high profile patent attorney and his views of the university relationships. His view was that it really hasn’t been all that helpful for larger companies in the tech space to partner with universities from an IP development point-of-view as it has been for hiring and the PR development activities. Given that this person had worked with large corporates and with large universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), i couldn't simply ignore the point of view he as bringing forward. One of the data he cited was around a study MIT did with ~25 companies running close to 100 projects with university. The data suggested that though 50% of projects were thought of as having major outcomes but only 20% could really lead to major impacts on the company that participated in collaboration. So there is a certain outcome-impact gap that exists in the way university and industry relations are being executed at the moment.

My third point is around expectations from this panel talk. To keep things simple, as a captain of this ship (panel talk!), I was really targeting 2 outcomes from this panel talk-
1. Acknowledgement of key issues around Technology Transfer Conflicts.
2. Design the way forward

Focus of the talk:

Given the outcomes expected from the 30-40 minutes of conversation with esteemed panellists (which included a Senior Technologist from NetApp, a Senior Patent Engineer from Texas Instruments and a seasoned legal counsel), the talk really focused on these questions-
1)      Why is Technology and IP transfer policy important in today’s context?
2)      What are the key challenges faced by Industry and Universities with respect to Technology Transfer?
3)      What are the reasons for tussle between inventors and universities ?
4)      How do the Technology Transfer policies change between Tier 1 and Tier 2 institutions?
5)      How do you compare these policies to those in developed economies such as US, Europe etc?
6)      How can organizations and academia set up a structured program to handle technology transfer conflicts – what are the best practices?
7)      Can Industry and Universities collectively create a standard policy to handle technology transfer conflicts?

Key takeaways:

1)      University and Industry relationships usually consists of many dimensions. In order of popularity, the most obvious dimension is that of hiring the talent. Next up is Branding. And arguably the most complex dimension is that of building a successful technology oriented relations.

2)      There are real, on-the-ground issues that exists (some of which are covered in below points) that discourages both universities and industry to pursue partnership with each other.

3)      There is a good deal of difference between what motivates universities and industry and this difference plays a huge role in ensuring the eventual success of the relationship. For universities, publishing research papers and producing intellectual property assumes higher purpose. For industries, its largely about business outcomes.

4)      In one of the arguments, universities (not all, but selectively) were equated to be playing the role of patent trolls. For starters, as dictionary defines, a patent troll is “a company that obtains the rights to one or more patents in order to profit by means of licensing or litigation, rather than by producing its own goods or service.
a.       Progressive universities focus a lot on research and one of the common outcomes from research is an intellectual property, which often takes the form or a patent or copyright or a publication right. Universities can then choose to exercise their right on the intellectual property in many different ways. One of the business-oriented ways to find the buyer companies for the generated IP with the sole intention to maximize the profits. There is nothing grossly wrong about universities thinking about profit but this act becomes debatable when larger societal implications takes backseat. One may argue that universities aren’t the sole protector of societal interests but being originator of research comes with a certain responsibility.

5)      Following on from the last point, which ended rather inconclusively, there is an apt discussion around granting exclusive rights to IP or non-exclusive rights.
a.       In an exclusive licence, the parties agree that no other person/legal entity can exploit the relevant IP, except the licensee.
b.      On the other hand, a Non-Exclusive Licence grants to the licensee the right to use the IP, but on a non-exclusive basis. That means that the licensor can still exploit the same IP and he/she can also allow other licensees to exploit the same intellectual property.
c.       Being aware of these licensing types and with the intention of maximizing the overall impact of the invention, universities could choose to grant non-exclusive license that would further allow many parties to gain from the invention.

6)      There was also an interesting view on how companies are choosing to liaison with universities. From the business side, one straight-forward way is to leverage university originated invention. However, there are several other ways to engage. Some of the visionary organizations are leveraging research potential of universities to gain knowhow about the futuristic technologies and help them prepare many years into the future.

7)      Few more ways for industry and academia to engage include (but not limited to)-
a.       Sponsored Infrastructure/lab
b.      Training & Curriculum Design
c.       Consulting
d.      Sponsored Research
e.       Open Research

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